A Weekend with Lidia

Last year I wrote about The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvitch, a book that changed the way I thought about truth, about telling my truths as a writer, as a woman. As my friend Debbie says, “I would follow Lidia Yuknavitch anywhere.” This is not a frivolous statement, for if you have read her writing, you know following Lidia means walking naked into the fire. It also means, as I learned this weekend in a two-day workshop with eleven other raw and beautiful souls, walking into an immense, fierce, loving heart.

I’m nowhere near ready to write about this weekend’s workshop. What it revealed to me, where it will take me in my own writing—closer and closer to the truth, which is a very scary, necessary place to be—is too fragile. But I can say Lidia led me right back to the slipstream of desires and fears that I dove into earlier this summer in Ireland—a place of deep listening and turbulent silence.

I read Lidia’s most recent novel, The Small Backs of Children, several weeks ago and posted this reader response in Goodreads. I recreate it here to encourage you to explore Lidia’s writing, to hear her voice, to follow her anywhere. Prepare to be changed.

The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch

It is the little girl from Trang Bang, a village north of Saigon, running naked and screaming from pain and bombs and napalm. Her name is Kim Phuc.

It is the electrifying stare of an Afghan teen, her head wrapped in a blood-red scarf, her green eyes pulsing with anger and fear at the Soviet invasion that has decimated her home. Her name is Sharbat Gula.

It is the Sudanese child dying of starvation, stalked by a vulture. We don’t know the child’s name or what became of her. The photojournalist took his own life two months later.

These captured moments are real; they stand as records of war and poverty and our lack of humanity. They are images bound to the politics that created them. Do we call them art? These are girls whose bodies were used as canvases of emotion. Looking at them from our safe remove, we shake our heads and tut-tut. “So sad,” we say. “Someone should do something.” And then we turn away.

From these stories of children caught in the world of men, Lidia Yuknavitch adds an imaginary other: a girl airborne like an angel as her home and family are atomized behind her, in a village on the edge of a Lithuanian forest. Like the iconic images above, this photo travels around the world, garnering gasps and accolades. A copy of it hangs on the wall of a writer’s home—she is the photographer’s former lover—haunting the writer as she moves from one marriage to another, birthing a son, becoming pregnant with a daughter. The photographer wins a Pulitzer and moves on, to other conflicts, other subjects, other lovers. We learn, much later, that the girl’s name is Menas.

On the surface, the premise of The Small Backs of Children seems simple, the plot a means to distinguish this work as a novel rather than a prose-poem. The writer lay dying of grief in a hospital in Portland. She cannot climb out of the hole created by the birthdeath of her stillborn daughter. In an effort to save her soul, her friends determine the girl in the photograph—now a young woman, if she is still alive—must be found and brought to the States. Two lives saved. But this daughterless mother and motherless daughter do not meet until near the end. And the end could be one of many that Yuknavitch offers up, as if to say, “Does it matter? There is no end. Not even in death is there an end.”

What happens in between is a howl. A series of howls, ripped from the body in ecstasy and terror. The Small Backs of Children is an exploration of the body, the body as art, the body as politic, all the ways we use and lose control of our bodies, or have them used against us. Yuknavitch shocks again and again, until it seems these characters are holes into and out of which pour the fluids of sex and addiction, art and death. Nearly all but the writer, her filmmaker husband, and the girl (mirror-selves of the author, her husband and their ghost-daughter) seem driven by their basest desires, or become victims of their own obsessions. And although there is only one Performance Artist, they all seem to be playing at their artistic selves, conflating art and life.

The premise may be transparent, but the execution of the plot—the shifting of the narrative between voices, countries, and eras—becomes something political and murky, a metafiction loop of invented words, fragile sound bites, and acts of literary revolution.

Virginia Woolf is a palimpsest beneath the narrative. As in The WavesThe Small Backs of Children is told through several voices that loop and leap in quicksilver language. Yet unlike Woolf’s Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny, and Louis, we know Yuknavitch’s characters only by their artistic occupations: The Writer, The Filmmaker, The Poet, The Playwright, The Performance Artist, The Photographer, and, perhaps standing in for Percival, The Girl. This unnaming keeps us at a distance. But to read Yuknavitch is to know she honors experimental forms and shoves away convention.

Gustave Flaubert, arguably the creator of the modern novel, stated, “An author in his work must be like God in the universe: present everywhere and visible nowhere.” What would Flaubert make of Lidia Yuknavitch? For in The Small Backs of Children, the author is visible everywhere. In each word and image and scene, we inhabit her visceral presence. If you scooped up and ate her body-memoir The Chronology of Water, you will recognize not only the themes of child loss, savage sexuality, rape, addiction, the vulnerability of girls, the release and capture of water, you will recognize scenes and words and images. It is as if we are in a continuation of Yuknavitich’s story, swimming in her stream of consciousness.

She transcends the notion of the novel and enters something larger: the intersection of prose and poetry and memoir and reportage. And the reader spins around this crossroads, trying to make sense of it all. The language propelled me forward, even as I felt the story spinning me away. Like a work of visual art that is meant to provoke, that is devoid of answers, redemption, resolution—the photograph of a young girl in a moment of terror or loss say—The Small Backs of Children drained me until I was a shell without reason, reduced to a body quivering with animal emotion.

The Way In

“What is a poem?” poet Leanne O’Sullivan asks, her soft voice straining to be heard over the rain pelting the conservatory roof. “How do prose and poetry differ?”

“There is more room for the reader in a poem,” I reply. “More room for interpretation and emotion.” I think of Colm Tóibín, one of my prose idols, who states that he writes the silences. I think poetry must be this, an honoring of the silence between the words, between our thoughts.

dot dot dot. question mark. Sitting with a blank notebook, uncertain in my ignorance, rattled by my fears, what the hell do I know?

Before arriving in Ireland to participate in this poetry workshop, I give myself permission to not write a poem. I’m not a poet, have never studied poetry, and my reading of it is determined, but haphazard, picking up recommendations during conferences or writing classes, from names dropped in books or by friends, from an obituary—for when does the world talk about poets, except when they die? As a writer of prose and essay, I know the value of rhythm and form, of the carefully chosen word, the breath taken, the meaning conferred in a phrase or in the spaces between. These are essential to developing my storytelling and writing art and craft. But to actually write my own poems?

All that I have to learn about poetry, all the poems I have yet to read, poets yet to discover . . . it makes me panicky, really. Yes. I would be the one to panic about poetry.

A creature of process, the kid forever tugging on a sleeve asking, “Why, mommy? WHY?” I pore over The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s lovely, lucid guide to poetry; I’ve got Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary on my equivalent of speed-dial (sitting on the end table next to the sofa); I sift through the teaching resources on poets.org

I am searching for a way in.

Yet on this workshop first day, as the storm blows off Slieve Miskish and hurtles toward Coulagh Bay, peace descends. My notes capture Leanne’s sure hand, leading me past my doubts: Poetry is permission to write; it is the places where language cannot go; it is the recognition that there is no language; it is the waiting, the revising; ‘The talent is knowing what’s called for,’ she quotes Seamus Heaney. Poetry is awareness. Awareness of what you are writing. Deliberate. Purposeful. Considered. Waited for. Poetry reveals or tells a truth, not fact. 

“What is your way into your poem?” This question Leanne poses to our workshop group is the essential question. It is the one I should be seeking the answer to. For finding my way in will take care of all the rest.

Kilcatherine Church and Graveyard, 7th century AD ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Kilcatherine Church and Graveyard, 7th century AD ©2015 Julie Christine Johnson

“What is your way in to your poem?”

Something vital and tangible. Something real and describable. Leanne tells us, “The real things of the world are the entry point to the imagination. Keep your feet on the ground. Keep your writing grounded by writing from a real place…”

I find my way in on a small road overlooking Coulagh Bay, sitting in the rain, remembering. I find my way in through the memory of a little girl with her arms wrapped around a stereo speaker, trying to draw the music into her body because her ears fail to hear it. I find my way into my first poem.

The moment is so natural and unbidden. I hear Leanne’s voice saying, “Maintain a sense of awe in the initial inspiration. A waiting has to happen for the poem to come.”

What is a poem? is, in its essence, a question that needs no answer. No immediate answer. No complete answer. For an answer excludes the entire process of discovery. Learning what a poem is comes from studying the poetry that has come before, the poetry that is happening now. Experiencing what a poem is happens when awe and meaning embrace, when experience takes over from expression.

“…there’s part of poetry that’s always about what cannot be said.” W.S. Merwin

Source: http://chalkthesun.org/

In Retreat

Friday, early evening. I'm warm and sleepy, face burnt by wind and sun, limbs thick and loose with fatigue.

I hiked the Beara Way from Eyeries to Allihies today. Not so far really-11 kms, just over 6 miles. But the way was challenging: across the Slieve Miskish range, skirting the boggy and desolate peaks of Miskish and Knockgour,  whistling through lonely valleys. Not a soul, even now, in the height of trekking season in Ireland. Just the wind, the sheep, kestrals, and my thoughts to keep me company.

Early in my novel, The Crows of Beara, three characters go on a hike along the Beara Way: Daniel, an Irish guide, Annie, an American, and one of Annie's Irish colleagues. Daniel drives them from Castletownbere until they reach a service road. He parks at a crossroads, then the three clamber over a turnstile into a farmer's field and begin their ascent up a boggy mountain. It's overcast, windy, and the bays below are hidden by a layer of fog.

I wrote the scene not from any specific memory of my time hiking the Beara in 2002, but from a composite of images I'd captured and held onto.

Today, I came to a sign pointing me back the way I'd come—Eyeries to the north, or east to Castletownbere, or south, to my intended destination of Allihies.  

I crossed a service road, clambered over a turnstile, and tromped through a field, scattering sheep in my wake. I began to ascend a boggy trail as thick mist raced down the mountain, obscuring my view of the sea.


When my character Annie reaches the peak on the trail, she pauses to catch her breath. The wind shoves the fog and mist aside and the bays, fields,  and villages below reveal themselves. Something constricts and then expands inside of her, as if her very soul had stilled in wonder, before filling its lungs with hope and longing and inexplicable joy.

As I paused on Knockgour to catch my breath, the wind pushed past me, carrying the mist up and over the mountain and out to sea. 

And my very soul stilled in wonder, before filling with delight. I realized I had written this moment. I had found the very place where Annie begins her transformation from one self into the next.

I'm on retreat here at Anam Cara. I'm a bit in retreat as well. I arrived a week ago (already, oh!). Only one other writer in residence this week; tomorrow the poetry group arrives. By the time you read this, I'll have left behind a routine to which I've so easily, quietly adapted: an early morning run along country roads, breakfast in a steamy kitchen, writing until noon, followed by a couple of hours proofing the ARC of In Another Life, lunch, a long hike, home again to write before dinner, then a few more hours of writing and reading before the sun finally sets, well after 10 p.m. I leave my curtains open and from bed, I watch the clouds change colors and shapes over Coulagh Bay, until suddenly it's morning again. Exquisite solitude.

I've written a couple drafts of an essay that's been agitating for months to be released on paper. I finished proofing my novel. I worked on a class I'm offering at the end of July. There's been an awful lot of gazing out the window from the desk in my room and meditating during my hikes, churning around ideas for the next novel. Tomorrow I'll start researching some of these ideas. Go for another hike. Be deliciously alone.

But a new week begins Sunday, as the poetry workshop convenes, and I must open my heart to learning, studying, and sharing. Poetry. I'm terrified. I can't wait. We'll be doing some exploring, as well, including other sites in The Crows of Beara I've yet to (re)visit.

It's Saturday now. I hear the others arriving. If I sneak out the back, with my pack, camera, notebook and water bottle, I can remain in retreat a little while longer . . .

 

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Drafting

Saturday afternoon, as the Pacific Northwest bid an unusually warm and clear adieu to spring, I completed the first draft of my third novel, Tui. No drum roll accompanied my typing of The End. No one witnessed the tears. I hadn't made any particular plan to finish on that day, but by Friday I knew I was close. Saturday I knew I was done.

It's a hollow release, this finishing of a novel. It comes with a particular wistfulness and melancholy for which there is no word. No matter how many months of revisions lay ahead, you will never experience these characters and their journeys in quite the same way again. If you're a pantser, like me, most of what happened on the page happened as you were writing. Experiencing the story's events and your characters' reactions and growth in real time is magical.

I'm not sure if I've told the story I set out to tell. I wrote the first half in fits and starts—six weeks in November and December, two weeks in February. Finally, by early April, after I'd submitted the final copy-edits of In Another Life to my publisher and the last revision of The Crows of Beara to my agent, I cleared out the worst of my to-do list to focus on Tui. As soon as I returned, new characters entered the scene and a certain light filtered into a dark narrative. I felt freer to play with styles and structure.

Tui is the most personal of my novels, inspired not only by my deep feelings for a place (in this case, New Zealand), but for a little girl I once knew, with whom I'd shared peanut butter and jam sandwiches, jam I'd made from the peaches that fell from her tree into my yard. I have no idea what happened to that child. She disappeared one day. I disappeared too, not long after. Hers was a physical disappearance, mine a descent into a dark abyss. This novel became a way to tell a little girl's story. And maybe bits and pieces of my own.

My second novel, The Crows of Beara, is on submission, a process that takes months, perhaps years. Yesterday, in my angst and restlessness, I rewrote the beginning of that novel. I revised the first forty pages and fired them off to my agent. If we need to go into a next round of submissions to publishers, this is the version I'd like to use. Because I think I learned something about my central protagonist, Annie, that I didn't know until I'd stepped into the heads and hearts of characters from a completely different story.

Or perhaps I rewrote those opening pages because finishing a novel is so bewildering.

What happens to Tui now? Nothing in the short-term. The novel will sit for weeks or months, resting, settling down. Sorting itself out. Revisions can be done only with a mind that sees the story from a fresh, well-rested perspective. I need to forget what my intention was when I started writing and work with what actually happened over those weeks and months as the story unfolded. Sometime in the fall, I'll open the manuscript again and see where it leads me.

Besides, I have this idea for a new novel and I'm itching to get started on it . . .

Pacific Coast, Canterbury, New Zealand 

Pacific Coast, Canterbury, New Zealand 

Source: http://chalkthesun.org/

The Chaos of Everything

The storage bin sits on the top shelf, at the back of the closet. Impossible to reach unless you dismantle the row of boxes beside it, navigate on tip-toes the winemaking equipment below. My journals.

2015-06-07-17-04-02.jpg

I quit journaling several years ago. Around the time I began blogging. No coincidence, that. After thirty-three years—my first journal was a Christmas gift when I was seven, a small blue, faux-leather book with a lock and tiny key, and gold lettering on the front: My Diary—I realized my words were going nowhere. I felt trapped by the private page.

Blogging became a way to hold myself accountable, even in those early days when I had no audience. As long as there was a chance someone would read my words, I sat up little straighter as I wrote, I paid attention to my digital penmanship. I chose my words carefully, not out of self-preservation or self-censorship, but to create a small work of art on the page, rather than a mud pie of emotion.

And it worked. That's the beauty of it. My gambit paid off. Taking my writing outside my head and throwing it to the intersphere allowed me to step out of my own mind and into others' perspectives. That's how characters are born. That's how conflicts are discovered. From the blog posts came the desire to write more. From the desire came the practice. And from the practice came the stories and the novels.

But now. The words. There are so many. The more I write, the more the words crowd around my mind's exit, pushing and shoving in an attempt at simultaneous escape. Not all are fit for public consumption, but they need to go somewhere.

It's time to begin journaling again.

I'm aching for the private, blank page. For the feel of a pen. The possibility of paper. I think and feel differently about my words when I engage in the physical act of writing. It's why I do all character sketches, theme building, initial plotting and later, the working out of plot holes, by hand. I need to feel my way through a story before I can make sense of the parts I see.

I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss—you can’t do it alone, John Cheever once said, and until recently I would have agreed with him. But now I need to save some words for myself.

“Writing, then, was a substitute for myself: if you don't love me, love my writing & love me for my writing. It is also much more: a way of ordering and reordering the chaos of experience.”

― Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Source: http://chalkthesun.org/

Full Circle | CHALK the SUN

“My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”
― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

This photo was taken in May 2002. My first trip to Ireland. Alone, I joined a small group of strangers to hike the Beara Peninsula, West Cork. And I fell truly, madly, deeply in love. On the flight home two weeks later, I turned my face toward the window and sobbed. I felt torn from a lover whom I was never meant to see again. Ireland had changed me. I had felt on the Beara a sense of peace and wholeness I had never experienced before.

I've returned to Ireland several times since then, each time to hike. My husband and I have traveled together, he under her spell as much as I. But that first time—and the Beara—remains a dream crystallized in photographs and memories.

 

A year ago January, I began thinking about my second novel, knowing only that it would be set in Ireland. Then I let go of wondering about the where and the why and concentrated on the who. As my characters began to take shape, I knew the threads connecting them to the setting would be found in a legend or a poem that expressed Ireland's power over the imagination and the soul. When I discovered An Cailleach Bheara, the legend of the Hag of Beara, the mother of Ireland, I knew I would return to the Beara Peninsula, if not in reality, then in the pages of my story.

Researching the legend of the Hag of Beara led me the poetry of Leanne O'Sullivan, a native of West Cork who published her first volume of poetry at the age of twenty-one. I wrote about her beautiful collection An Cailleach Bheara in this post: An Cailleach Bheara: The Hag and her sunrise

 The Beara Peninsula was once a site of the copper mining industry, before those reserves were exhausted in the late 19th century. The skeletons and scars of those mines are visible today. In my novel, I brought the possibility of copper mining back to modern Beara, a place in need of an economic lifeline after recession felled the Celtic Tiger in the late 2000s. And Leanne O'Sullivan's poetry answered me yet again, in her collection The Mining Road.

 The wild, scabrous beauty of the Beara belies its fragility. In a cove, on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic, a population of Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax chatters and clings, nesting in the shadow of industry and development. These birds, the Red-billed chough-a member of the crow family—became a sort of character in their own right and their plight, one of my novel's central themes. The Crows of Beara was a finalist in the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction and is now on submission, looking for its publishing home.

 And I am packing for Ireland. The Beara Peninsula, specifically. In a month, I will be spending two weeks at the Anam Cara Retreat Center, one week in residency working on my own, one week in a workshop led by Leanne O'Sullivan: Lining Our Thoughts, A Poetry Writing Workshop. I'm terrified. I've never written a lick of poetry in my life. But I knew the minute I learned of this workshop—a chance search on the internet—I had to be there. The Universe is granting me the opportunity to come full circle. I'll visit An Cailleach Bheara for the first time. I will thank Leanne O'Sullivan in person for the gift of her words. Perhaps find a few more of my own.

 My heart is quite calm now. I am going back.

"The Beara Peninsula stretched away from the southwest coast of Ireland into the North Atlantic like the long foot of a lizard. At the tip of the foot was a gnarled knuckle of land: the Slieve Miskish mountains. The knuckle slid south to end in three claws—the westernmost tips of the country. Ballycaróg wasn’t at the very end of the earth—that distinction belonged to the edge of Dursey Island, ten miles south—but it was tucked into a cove that looked toward nothing but ocean, all the way to Canada’s Maritime Provinces."

from The Crows of Beara, by Julie Christine Johnson

Source: http://chalkthesun.org/2015/06/01/full-cir...

Taking Care of Business

I missed my Monday blog this week. First time in over two years. And here I am at 4 a.m. on a Friday, the eastern sky a faded bruise blue, waiting for my coffee to steep, catching up with you.

 

The skipped blog post . . . It's not that I didn't have anything to say. Oh my, there's so much I haven't told you. The workshop that brought me back to my old neighborhood and face-to-face with my dread, handing me a story and delivering me from my lingering longing; the adventure that is right around the corner, a return to a place of inspiration and soul-peace; the nagging self-doubt that comes with waiting for someone to accept my work, assuring me that this thing I'm doing is really a career and not a one-off lark. Preparing to teach my first writing class. Taking my first writing class in ages. So much to share.

 

But I'm working hard to fit everything in and for once, something had to give. I've regained my footing with Tui, my third novel, and that momentum has meant everything. To write fresh material, to not quite know where a story is going, after months and months of revising and editing two novels, with deadlines looming and others' hands on my work . . . this is to return to the essence of me, what gives shape and color and texture to my writing spirit. It also helps pull my thoughts away from the other, this business of being an author that is so counter-intuitive to my introverted, scribbling-away-in-the-garret self.

 

This blog is meant to be a commercial-free zone. Although I share stories of my writing and publishing journey, it's a place of refuge from the book promotion to-do lists and author platform-building. Those things must be done, but they can be done elsewhere.

 

Except today. Because there are things I want to share with you and I need to let you know where to find my news. I received the front and back covers for the ARCs (Advance Reader Copy) of In Another Life earlier this week—well, the front cover I've had for quite some time, but now it is more than just a .pdf snapshot, it's the real deal, with log line, back cover copy, a price, EVERYTHING. It's beautiful. It's real. So exciting.

 

As this commercial break winds down and we return to our regularly-scheduled programming, this is what I want to share with you: I'm just about to launch an occasional newsletter from my website that will have updates on the publishing process and eventually, this author's events. Right now, and through late summer, signing up for the newsletter means you'll be entered to win a signed ARC of In Another Life (I'll have several to give away); next week's inaugural newsletter has a glimpse of that cover I'm so thrilled about!

 

Plus, I've been futzing around with the website, adding new content, playing with the design. I'd love it if you'd take a look and tell me what you think: Julie's Author Website and Newsletter Sign-Up 

 

And now the sun has cleared the eastern mountains. Time for a run, and a day of writing.


Une porte, Sancerre, France © 2015, Julie Christine Johnson

Source: http://chalkthesun.org/2015/05/08/taking-c...

Past Meets Present: A Story Finds a Home

Those cooking magazines stacked on a shelf. I hold on to so little from my past that is tangible, but these long, glossy journals contain dreams and memories about which I cannot speak. I never look through them, and yet I take comfort in the pretty swirl of logo on their spines. They tell of a land where I once made Spicy Pumpkin, Peanut and Spring Onion Fritters, Harissa Lamb Mince, Black Cherry Cake with Ricotta Cream, savored wines from Gimblett Gravels and Central Otago, and pressed flat the corners of color-drenched articles about Waiheke Island, Hawke's Bay, Akaroa, planning future explorations of our new home: New Zealand.

~

A photograph of three men on a bridge in southwest Ireland. Their waterproof jackets in primary red, blue, and green are playful beacons in a drizzle that softens the air so the photograph looks brushed with mist, like the picture of a dream. One of those men is gone, now.

~

A disaster I watched unfold from thousands of miles away. A city crumbling, streets liquefying, familiar buildings collapsing on themselves, as if dealt a sucker punch to their architectural sternum. The café where I had served slow-braised lamb shanks and poured glasses of pinot noir now in ruins, streets I had walked and biked to yoga, the library, the tea shop, the bookstore turned into canyons filled with rubble. But I no longer belonged to that place. There was nothing I could do but mourn.

~

"We write to exert power over something we can never control," says Nellie Hermann, creative director of the narrative medicine program at Columbia University. "The past."

~

The stories that live inside me are threads of evidence. Evidence of my past, real and imagined, remembered and wished for. Many of those threads dangle, barely visible unless the light shifts or the breeze picks them up. But sometimes a thread catches on a thought, and then another, until they weave themselves into a pattern, and that pattern becomes a narrative of character and place, of movement and change.

~

A stack of cooking magazines that hold regrets and broken dreams. A photograph of a moment that holds memories of a man who walked by my side on a green peninsula, where together we built a bistro in the misty air. An earthquake that shattered a place I'd called home. These threads found each other last summer, twirling into a rope I held as I wrote.

~

It is an honor when someone selects your story to share with the world. It is a thrill to press a beautiful volume of prose and poetry and art against your heart and know your words beat within its pages.

~

Mud Season Review, the literary journal of the Burlington Writers Workshop, selected my short story Prix Fixe for its first annual print issue. I am so pleased.

 

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Layer Cake

Cake baking has never been my thing. Too fussy. The ingredients make it look deceptively easy—butter, flour, salt, sugar, baking powder, milk, eggs and Bob's your uncle. But the ingredients must be at a just-so temperature. The flour must be aerated, light. And if we're talking layers and frosting, know that my inner klutz is cringing. Candy thermometers. Cake plates. Offset spatulas. Crumb coating. Pastry bags. Cakes that bubble on top or sink in the middle. Cakes that cling to the bottom of the pan, peeling away like a thick layer of epidermis. Frosting that is too thick, tearing at the fragile skin, or too thin, running down the sides like desultory rain, pooling on the plate, soaking your cake's feet.

But when it comes to writing, I'm Martha Stewart. I'm a Six-Layer Coconut Cake with Lemon Curd filling.

I'm revising my second novel, The Crows of Beara, following my agent's suggestions, questions, and cautions as a guide. I'm in a bit of a rush, emotionally. Agent wants to get this out "on sub" by mid-spring, before the summer doldrums sweep everyone out of their offices. On sub is writer jargon for 'agent sending manuscript to editors, looking for novel's publishing home.'

Practically speaking, the story is hitting its stride. When I finished the first draft a year ago, it had 105,000 words. After three revisions last fall, I submitted a 99,000 word second draft as my entry for the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Fiction. The Crows of Beara was one of two finalists for the prize, which gave me confidence that publication was worth pursuing.

Now into my second revision of a third draft, I'm working with 88,700 words. Over fifteen percent of a novel, gone.

My first drafts aren't brain dumps, per se, but I do try to silence the inner editor. I do resist returning to earlier scenes or chapters, for fear of falling into a doubt trap, or miring myself in the revision process. I'm simpatico with Cheryl Strayed, who so succinctly gets it: "I write to find what I have to say. I edit to figure out how to say it right." (From The New York Times Sunday Book Review, March 24, 2015)

Once I begin revising, it's a meticulous excising of excess detail and repetitive language and meandering thoughts and conversations to get at the heart of the story.

I may delete. But I never throw anything away.

During the first round of writer-editor revisions of In Another Life, I encountered notes from my editor requesting more detail here, more exposition or background there, clarification of background. In some cases, she was asking for layers—character motivation, a shoring up of sub-plot; in other instances, she was looking for frosting—a rounding out or plumping up of detail, filling in the crevices of the story's foundation. Fortunately, I had nearly all of what she wanted from earlier drafts. It was a matter of copying, pasting, refining to fit the story as it had evolved.

The notes off to the side of The Crows of Beara read a bit differently. My agent has been unsparing and insightful at pointing out where I've gone too far, given away too much, overdone it, rambled on. These revisions have been like restoring a piece of furniture, stripping away the layers of thick paint to reveal the clean bare bones beneath.

In careful revision, I see the layers of story for what they are. I'm able to shift sentences and phrases around, picking up something I discarded on page 113 and adding it to a paragraph on page 87. I see where the second scene in Chapter 12 really should be the first scene and a thoughtful transition shows something about a character not yet revealed or a clean end to a chapter leads the reader naturally to the next. All these minute layers building to a stronger whole.

I'm a bread baker. It's not fussy, it's physical. I've learned over the years that it all comes down to the knead. You can knock most mistakes out of a lump of yeast dough if you're willing to put time and energy into kneading (bread machines and Kitchen Aid bread hooks need not apply. That's not bread baking, that's an assembly line). Forget what the recipe says; most underestimate the time it takes to knead dough into submission by at least half. Probably because they know you wouldn't start the process if you knew the truth.

Kind of like writing a novel.

Pumpkin Layer Cake with Maple Cream Frosting. I made this. Yes. Yes, I did. 

Pumpkin Layer Cake with Maple Cream Frosting. I made this. Yes. Yes, I did. 



Source: https://wordpress.com/post/14799284/4628

Elena Ferrante #ReviewWomen2015 | CHALK the SUN

Discovering authors whose works I've either never heard of, or for some reason passed by, is one of reading's great joys. Something—a friend's recommendation, an author interview read or heard, a change of heart—compels me to read one of the unknown or forgotten, and I find myself in the lovely spot of suddenly having an author's backlist to catch up on. Because the book, the writing, the everything is THAT GOOD. It's like finding $50 in your pocket, just as the clouds clear on a dreary day and the sun beams through.

I'm already in for two new-to-me authors this year, and 2015 isn't even three months old. The first was Lily King, whose Euphoria I waxed euphoric about last month; I read another of King's right away, and was enthralled once again: Father of the Rain. The second is Italy's enigmatic Elena Ferrante.

I don't have time to determine why these writers' previous works escaped my notice; I have too much reading to do.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.

And so begins Olga's descent into the heart of her own darkness. The Days of Abandonment packs a wallop of tension and cringe-inducing desperation into 188 pages of elegantly-rendered narrative. This isn't the story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, this is THE nervous breakdown, in all its raw ugliness. We may tut-tut as we read Olga's hair-raising mayhem, but really, isn't this what we fear, in the wee hours, in our most vulnerable moments? As Shakespeare's Polonius declares in Hamlet, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't."

The method is familiar: husband leaves wife for younger woman (in this instance, the very young daughter of a former family friend). Wife, who hasn't worked outside the home for many years, is left with the children, the house, the bills, and her own aging body. Disbelief, depression, anger, the divvying up of friends, the hope and fear of running into the ex and his paramour ensue. But Olga's madness? There is nothing expected in the way Elena Ferrante portrays Olga's domestic drama.

Olga's recounting of her freefall is detached and unsentimental. She tells it some years distant, but I also wonder if there is not some translation styling at work here. Although Ann Goldstein has translated all Ferrante's Europa Editions-published works, so I have to assume her tone is true to the author's own.

Contrary to that sense of emotional detachment, The Days of Abandonment is an intensely physical story. Olga is both obsessed with and horrified by her body, which at thirty-eight is showing the inevitable signs of age. She ruminates frequently about sex, reducing it to a purely animal act, torturing herself with images of her husband Mario, and his young lover, and then seducing her neighbor in a pathetic cry to recapture her crushed sexual self. Ferrante uses pain-an errant piece of glass in pasta sauce that pierces the roof of Mario's mouth; the threat of a mother to cut off her daughter's hands with sewing shears; a child's forehead smashing into the windshield to the sound of screeching car brakes--to frame Olga's sanity. It's almost as though pain is a stand-in for emotion: as long as Olga can envision pain and feel it, she'll be alright. She had reinforced locks put in the front door and at her lowest point, she struggles to open the locks, finally resorting to using her teeth. At one point, Olga asks her daughter Ilaria to poke her with a paper cutter if her concentration wanders

 

I immediately pulled my mouth away from the key, it seemed to me that my face was hanging to one side like the coiled skin of an orange after the knife has begin to peel it. ...For a while I let myself sink into desperation, which would mold me thoroughly, make me metal, door panel, mechanism, like an artist who works directly on his body. Then I noticed on my left thigh, above the knee, a painful gash. A cry escaped me, I realized Ilaria had left a deep wound.

 

Most disturbing is the toll Olga's depression takes on her children and Otto, the family dog. The upsetting scenes of abuse and neglect may well kill any empathy you develop for Olga as an abandoned woman. But without them, Ferrante's narrative would simply be a mildly prurient glimpse into the life of the newly forsaken.

Olga wrestles with her post-abandonment identity, and her struggle is an alarm bell the author sounds relentlessly as she mocks the absurd circumstance of marriage that calls upon women to set aside their professions and their physical freedom, to attend to home, family, husband.

 

I had carried in my womb his children; I had given him children. Even if I tried to tell myself that I had given him nothing, ... Still I couldn't avoid thinking what aspects of his nature inevitably lay hidden in them. Mario would explode suddenly from inside their bones, now, over the days, over the years, in ways that were more and more visible. How much of him would I be forced to love forever, without even realizing it, simply by virtue of the fact that I loved them? What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is. Even if the relationship shatters and ends, it continues to act in secret pathways, it doesn't die, it doesn't want to die.

 

What a complex, foamy mixture a couple is... Indeed. Foamy. An interesting choice of word. So sensual, evocative, invoking the fluids of sex, but also foaming at the mouth—a sign of madness, a rabidity of rage.

The Days of Abandonment is frank, gutting, oddly funny, and awfully sad. But it is not without hope, and throughout you are reminded that Olga survives her madness. Even swirling in its whirlpool, she has one hand above water, reaching, grasping.

Elena Ferrante's brilliance is withholding her judgment of her characters. She writes their truth and allows readers to create their own morality. Her writing, though not warm, is full of heat. The carapace of narrative rage cracks to reveal tender new skin beneath.

Source: http://chalkthesun.org/2015/03/23/elena-fe...

That’s a Wrap: My (almost) Final Edits | CHALK the SUN

I just clicked Send. My final edit deadline is tomorrow. I made it. It's gone, for better or for worse. The Novel is gone. It is in the hands of an editing team who will clean up my commas and semi-colons and whip the manuscript into shape à la The Chicago Manual of Style. I can do no more.

The next time I see In Another Life, in a month or so, it will be in galley proof form. I'll be allowed to make only line edits or proofreading corrections. The story is what it will be today, tomorrow, and a year from now, on Publication Day.

I entered the editor-writer conversation and exchange process with a focused humbleness. Knowing I had so much to learn about this part of the publishing journey, I expected the story to be challenged and questioned, coaxed and tamed. What I didn't expect—not at this late stage—is that I would be my harshest critic. Even after the revisions were complete and the story set, each read-through brought more changes to language, tone, rhythm. It's not just that I felt the story and writing improve with each draft; I felt the writer and storyteller improve.

And so I think about a year from now, how it will feel to release this novel when I will no longer be the same writer. I'm certainly not the same writer who began In Another Life on a July day in 2012.

A sense of writer's remorse sits heavy on my soul. I should have read it through one more time. There will be something, I know, something critical I have missed—just as there has been on each pass—a better way to construct a phrase, a scene, a novel.

But I have to let that go, don't I? This is part of the process—accepting that what's published today might not be what you would write tomorrow. In Another Life is my apprenticeship and my act of faith. It taught me many things about the writing process, lessons I hope never to relearn: don't write without some sort of a plan; don't write more than a handful of scenes out of sequence; don't share your work too early; don't listen to that inner critic telling you to hang it up and go home.

Do listen to the voice that says, Keep Writing. The story will sort itself out in time.

And now a year looms. A year to worry that no one will ever read the thing. A year to worry that they will. A year to plan blog tours and blurbs and fret about that damn launch party.

A year to revise the second novel and pray that it sells, and to finish the third. The fourth is already wrapping tiny, thin tendrils of idea around my brain . . .

Speaking of marketing and promotion, here's my new website: Julie Christine Johnson Don't judge. I created the site just yesterday. Not much there, I know. It'll get fleshed it out in time, probably go through a template change or three. But for now, I've snagged my domain name and a fresh, clean canvas to paint.

You guys. I wrote a novel. It's going to be published. That's just silly.

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
― Dorothy Parker

Deception Pass,  Whidbey Island © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Deception Pass,  Whidbey Island © 2015 Julie Christine Johnson

Keeping It Real: On Boudinot & NaNoWriMo

A few years ago, I signed up for guitar lessons. To learn my way around an acoustic was something I'd wanted for pretty much my whole life. I showed up to class every Monday evening and dutifully practiced every day. I loved it. I was awful, I knew it, and I didn't care. The day I was able to strum Cat Stevens' Wild World without hesitating over chord changes was one of the most gleeful of my life.  

But I quit those lessons after a couple months. The instructor. I think I was causing him actual physical pain. I was the only true beginner in a beginner's class and everyone just blew right past me. So I shrugged, set the guitar aside, and decided that one day, I'd find someone who was interested in teaching someone like me—earnest, with short, stubby fingers.

 

Late February, the Seattle-based alternative weekly newspaper The Stranger printed a piece by author Ryan Boudinot, Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One, and the internet blew up, at least those bits writers pay attention to. Several brilliantly-worded rebuttals have been penned in the intervening days, and I'll include links to a few of those at the end.

 

I could rant about Mr. Boudinot's silly conjectures on the nature of talent, or the age one must begin writing in order to achieve "success", or his revolting remark,"Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable. In fact, having to slog through 500 pages of your error-riddled student memoir makes me wish you had suffered more." (Yes. Yes, he did). Yet what upsets me most is the attitude of entitlement and exclusivity that pervades this piece, that the act of writing belongs only to the most gifted and Mr. Boudinot should not have had his time wasted by the hapless.

 

Mr. Boudinot does make some salient, if not terribly original, points: Writers must write a lot (and not make excuses why they cannot); they must read a lot; they must work very, very hard, and expect obscurity; they must write authentic prose; and the publishing industry is really different than it was several years ago. Boom. Now you know.

 

I trust most MFA faculty do what they should: instruct and guide, rather than smirk at and bemoan the talentless or anoint the rare "Real Deals", as Mr. Boudinot refers to the handful of MFA students he taught over the years whose prose he could celebrate, rather than merely stomach. The profession of creative writing instruction is better for seeing the backside of Mr. Boudinot.

 

A few days after the Boudinot Debacle, another discussion unrolled in an online group of writers, this time about an interview with literary agent Chris Pariss-Lamb, The Art of Agenting, and his comment:

 

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? ...  I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.

 

Okay. Here's the thing. I agree 100 percent with this statement. Except when I don't. I have never participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)—the November event that encourages people to pen 50,000 words of a rough draft from November 1-30—and can't see that I ever will. But does that mean I find it insulting (assuming of course that I'm a "real writer")? Does that mean I have the right to pass judgment on how others find and express their writing voice? Was Jimmy Page pissed off that I was butchering Peter, Paul and Mary because my feeble attempts belittled his years of practice? Did I actually think what I was doing was easy, just because I had a guitar? Seriously?

 

NaNoWriMo might have as much to do with writing a novel as the Runner's World Run-a-Mile-a-Day-for-30-Days challenge has to do with training for a marathon, but that's not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is to commit to the act of writing, perhaps giving a story a chance to take purchase in one's otherwise-distracted mind and busy life. It is a celebration of effort, a jubilation of creation.

 

Critics contend NaNoWriMo gives the impression that writing a novel is easy, if you can just crank out 1,667 words a day. Of course, no one understands what it takes to write a novel if they haven't put in the years of writing and revising and collecting rejections (the latter being an integral part of the writing process), and if the amazing happens—the book deal—all the work of revising and promotion that follow. But the Special Snowflake approach to writing—that no one really understands how hard it is unless they are the Real Deal or a Real Writer—oh, get over yourself.

 

Someone commented that we don't want/need more people writing novels. Fie on that. We want more people writing, painting, plucking out terrible renditions of Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a guitar. We want more people thinking creatively, telling stories, dreaming. It's the rare few who take it all the way past dream and hobby to send their work into the world, fewer still who find their way past the gatekeepers and into the realms of a profession. The "Real Deals" are those who show up to the page, day in and day out, despite lousy teachers and naysayers, despite the competition. The "Real Deals" make room at the table for all. Even those lumbering in with guitar cases in hand.  

“To hell with facts! We need stories!” ― Ken Kesey

Things Fall Apart

Last night the adapter cord to my MacBook Pro gave out. There is a notice flashing on my printer's display panel that the drum needs to be changed and the toner is nearly depleted.  I have a raging case of tendonitis in my right arm and my neck wobbles on my spine, as if it can't quite carry the load of my heavy head--technological and physical manifestations of too much time spent on the computer.  The computer power cord is a minor crisis.  A new one should arrive Wednesday. In the meantime, I'm coming to you from an iPad, wondering how anyone types on this thing without a keyboard. Just don't judge. This week's formatting and editing will be half-assed. I'm typing with one finger.   Folks, the power cord incident could have been a major crisis. A meltdown of epic proportions averted by the mere shadow of days. Monday (tomorrow as I write, today as you read), my next-to-penultimate round of novel edits is due. Not only that, but a literary journal to which I'd submitted a short story back in July finally turned around their edits last Wednesday, requesting that I make my changes by . . . Tonight. Yup.   Done. Dusted. Damn. I submitted novel edits on Wednesday and short story edits Friday. You just go ahead and fall apart on me, Crucial Technology. I'm way ahead of you.   The end of the edits is nigh and I'm so ready. I've read The Novel so many times in the past two months, I can quote entire passages by heart. Knock Wood, revisions are behind me as of one draft ago; now I'm fine-tuning, line-editing, killing not plot darlings, but literary ticks. I read The Novel out loud last week, catching repetive words and phrasing (I had a thing for the words bitter, bloom, flat, drain, north, and all manner of breath, breathing, inhaling, exhaling. Jeepers). From the Read-Aloud Edit alone, I cut 1000 words.   For my next edit trick, I shall read The Novel backwards. I kid you not.   My editor promises to hand off the next round by Wednesday, just in time for that power cord to arrive. For me to hope that the fix is a simple change of hardware. Otherwise I am, to put it bluntly, screwed.   I'll have about ten days to edit, and then back to the publisher it goes. A month of freedom to tackle revisions of THE CROWS OF BEARA, which my agent turned back to me last week (I used precious battery power last night, printing off the manuscript; printer toner and drum survived to print another day), then The Novel will be shuffled off to the Production team. It will undergo a final scrubbing--line editing and proofreading--before being formatted into something resembling a book. A cover is forthcoming. A frontpiece map. Sometime in April I will have galleys to proof. Then that's it: other than minor corrections that become apparent after the ARCs go out this summer, it is what it is, and it will no longer be mine.   Three elements of The Novel remain on my to-do list: Acknowledgements; Reading Group Discussion Questions; and an Author Q&A. Yesterday, I made an iPhone video of myself talking about the inspiration for The Novel for the Sales and Marketing team. No, you don't get to see it. Don't even ask.   I realize I keep calling The Novel, The Novel. It does have a name, but it's not what it was once, or even what it was after that. Can you bear one more title change? Although I'm learning never to say never when it comes to publishing changes, I'm thinking this one may just stick. And I love it. At last.   Here's a glimpse of the editorial decision making process:

Hi Julie, We have come up with an incredible new title for (the book formerly known as REFUGE OF DOVES, and then REMEMBERING! This title came out of taking a hard look at the positioning of the book and what the heart of the story is. Part of what you wrote in your first response to my editorial letter was really helpful for us-- We’re not concerned with the how of reincarnation, but rather the more profound emotional reactions to it. This pointed us in the direction of focusing on the experience of reincarnation and got us thinking about books like THE TIME TRAVELER’S WIFE and LIFE AFTER LIFE, both of which have time travel/reincarnation elements, have been hugely successful, and also have very revealing titles that tell you basically what the book is about. My latest idea was to shift focus from just the title to concentrating on the entire front cover—what the title, cover tag, and cover image together as a unified package will communicate about the book. I think we have come up with a really strong title and tag that play off of each other in a compelling way. Title: In Another Life Tag: Three men are trapped in time. One woman could save them all.

  Well, I'm tapped out. Please laugh at that. I need to know you're laughing.   Just one last thing.  Do you know what else I ordered yesterday, in addition to that damnable power cord? Of course you don't. I ordered a portable keyboard for this tablet. It's coming with me this summer on a grand adventure. Which I'll tell you all about, soon . . .

Cutout Heart

Walking past a jewelry store a few days before Valentine's Day, I see a window display of cutout hearts dangling on silver ribbons.

 

I forget, until I remember.

 

Hearts cut out, dangling on ribbons of memory. I see tender threads of sorrow connecting us to our losses: loved ones passed on; friends who have passed us by; lovers whose touch has faded with time. My cutout hearts: our first child, due February 10; our second child, due February 14.

 

I forgive, until I rage.

 

This time of year usually finds me deep underground, out of the chatter, holding my grief silent and sacred. But this year—the year of charmolypi—I decide to hang on and hang out, to push through and pretend. I forget how raw I can become, as though my skin has been stripped away.

 

I am together, until I fall apart. 

 

What happens is coincidence. A curse of timing. Mercury in Retrograde. At my most vulnerable, I linger in a social media forum on the cusp of a weekend, like a child in the schoolyard at recess, watching as a group knits together, their backs to me, intent on their own games, speaking their secret language. The language of sisterhood. The language of motherhood. Languages I will never speak, countries I will never visit.

 

I am whole, until I break. 

 

All the rage. All the raw hurt. It pours out in little-girl loneliness. I lose my shit. I really do. For days, a ticker-tape parade of all my faults and shortcomings replays in digital neon shoutycaps:

JULIE, NO ONE WILL EVER PICK YOU FOR THEIR TEAM BECAUSE YOU ARE

withdrawnawkwardweirduglysillyclumsyboringnotasisternotamothernotoneofus

 

And then it stops. Not all at once. It takes some serious self-talk and soul-searching. The gushing fire hydrant of self-hate eventually diminishes to a lawn sprinkler, and then to the last trickle from a closed water spout. It takes keeping my eyes peeled for moments of grace.

 

I stand in shadow, until I turn my face to the sun.

 

Grace comes first from the inside. A recognition that all my rational energy is fighting the good fight—the one that keeps my head above water when it sees the tsunami wave of depression bearing down. It comes in the letting go of unfair expectations—of myself, of others.

 

Other moments of grace follow: an article, shared by Rene Denfeld—whose powerful writing and capacity for compassion serve as inspiration for the writer and woman I strive to be—and in the reading, I accept my grief for what it is—endless and all right (Getting Grief Right); an essay by Elizabeth Gilbert that makes me realize I must reclaim the shit I've lost and own it. Own that I hurt, that I overreact in moments of acute pain and loneliness, and forgive myself for not always getting the really awful stuff just right.

 

Emotional healing guru Iyanla Vazant says, “When you see crazy coming, cross the street.” In this case, I meet crazy in the middle of the road. I put my arms around her and say, "You are loved. You are worthy. Now, let's celebrate."

 

I walk, until I dance. 

 

A wee package arrives in the mail from someone who has never met me, but who offers up her faith in me, her heart, her home. In the grace of a sparkling just-spring day, I melt.

 

"I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them." I pulled this from that lovely New York Times article to which I linked above. The thing is, I'm writing about my sorrows. I'm writing a whole huge novel about the sorrows. It's the toughest work I've ever done. My character, Holly, she isn't me. The story isn't autobiographical, although some of the places are places I've been, some of the experiences are ones I've had. But it's not so much that I'm writing about what I know; rather, I'm writing what I feel.

 

I write, until I heal. 

 

That girl on the playground feels a warm hand slip into hers, pulling her away from what she doesn't have, into the embrace of what she does: the love of wonderful boy. My Valentine.

 

I am not a novelist, really not even a writer; I am a storyteller. One of my friends said about me that I think all sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story or tell a story about them, and perhaps this is not entirely untrue. To me, the explanation of life seems to be its melody, its pattern. And I feel in life such an infinite, truly inconceivable fantasy. ~ Isak Dinesen

 

2015-02-23 08.31.08

 

Euphoria by Lily King #ReviewWomen2015

Last year, writer Joanna Walsh began the #ReadWomen2014 campaign to shed light on the marginalization of women writers in the literary world (as quantitatively evidenced by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts) and quite simply and joyfully, to bring more readers to books written by women.  

The #ReadWomen2014 hashtag took off across social media. Debate and discussions regarding literature written by women, "women's fiction," the paucity of reviews in mainstream media, and representation of women in the literary arts continue to grow.

 

Journalist and author Hannah Beckerman proposed that 2015 be the year we focus attention on reviewing books written by women. She's created both a hashtag and a Twitter account #ReviewWomen2015 @ReviewWomen2015  I'm delighted to contribute my words to this effort. I'll be blogging reviews of books written by women writers this year; only women writers. My Goodreads reviews are posted here View my reviews, but what makes it to the blog are books that set my head and heart spinning, like this extraordinary novel from Lily King.

 

EuphoriaEuphoria by Lily King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I picture Lily King in her office, surrounded by a library’s worth of research materials. Drafts of Euphoria are stacked in descending towers along one wall, each draft a stair-step lower. I picture a writer chipping away at her words, like a sculptor to marble, until the true work reveals itself; the words coming to life in the reader’s imagination the way hard, cold stone warms like flesh under the hand.

 

Euphoria was inspired by anthropologist Margaret Mead and her experiences along the Sepik River with her husband Reo Fortune and the British anthropologist who would become her second husband, Gregory Bateson. But the story is entirely of King’s invention, including the tribes and their cultures. The novel is a feat of research, imagination, passion, and restraint.

 

A sense of menace pervades the narrative, beginning with the first paragraphs. It is the early 1930s, and American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen are fleeing the aggressive Mumbanyo tribe in a canoe when something is tossed at them. It lands near the canoe’s stern but Nell can't see what it is: Fen has broken her glasses. He remarks that it’s, “Another dead baby.” Nell can’t tell if he’s joking. When her infertility and miscarriages are later revealed, Fen's caustic remark becomes unforgivably cruel.

 

Yes, their marriage is a hot mess. Both are gifted anthropologists, but it is Nell, the author of a best-selling, controversial ethnography, “The Children of Kirakira,” who garners acclaim and grant money. Fen can hardly be bothered to carry a notebook and pen. Their months with the Mumbanyo have nearly destroyed the couple physically and emotionally, and they are returning to Australia to regroup and then embark upon a study of the Aborigines.

 

Enter Andrew Bankson, an Englishman who has been in New Guinea for years, studying the Kiona tribe. Bankson, escaping the shadow of an overbearing mother and the ghosts of two dead brothers, is on the brink of suicide. He invites the Stones to return to New Guinea, but they are aware of the competitive nature of anthropologists and fear there’s no more room in the territory for them to set up camp. Bankson, loneliness seeping from his pores, introduces the Stones to the Tam tribe and the three become a triangle of intellect and intrigue.

 

The narrative is told in third person from Nell’s perspective, in first person from Bateson’s, and through Nell’s journal. The alternating voices, the shifts in time, and the retrospection serve to enhance the tension. Bankson leaves clues that something terrible has happened, but the author reveals only enough to compel the reader onto the next page, and the next. This is a novel that will make you late for work, or keep you reading far past your bedtime.

 

The anthropologists devise an ingenious grid to classify all of human culture (riffed from a classification theory that Margaret Mead herself devised), but they are utterly incapable of understanding their own hearts. Bankson falls hard for Nell the moment he sees her, and she is torn between her partnership with Fen, her ambition, and the shelter she finds in Bankson’s adoration. But there is nothing maudlin about their interactions; King maintains the sexual and emotional tension like a piano wire plucked and humming.

 

Vivid and extraordinary are the encounters between the Stones and Bankson and the tribes under their study: Tam and Kiona, respectively. These are the genius moments of Euphoria, as these three Westerners assume the role of cultural scientists with the arrogance born of ignorance. Theirs is a new science and they are eager to experience the euphoria of discovery and understanding. When a breakthrough is made, they feel they could “rip the stars from the sky and write the world anew.” Here, too, there is intrigue, as Nell is allowed deeper into the female-dominated society of the Tam while Fen—in all his petty jealousy and arrogance—secretly plots to obtain his own piece of fame.

 

Lily King had so much rich material to work with. She could have offered us a doorstop of a read, a cultural and emotional epic. Instead, she chiseled away until she reached the heart of darkness. Euphoria is all the more profound and moving for her restraint. An excellent novel.

Getting the Words Right

Friday morning. Café. Rain. Quad shot Americano. It's early afternoon in Chicago. Here on the island, I check my inbox like a lab rat presses the sugar water lever. This craving for the e-mail from my editor. The e-mail with her responses to my five weeks' worth of edits on IN ANOTHER LIFE. The e-mail that signals the beginning of another five weeks of editing. Craving, yet dreading it, too.  

I'm tired, feeling fragile. Sleep was elusive last night, although my restlessness allowed me to finish Tess of the d'Ubervilles and I surely could not have spared a moment's thought for my characters while Tess was wandering forlorn and forsaken in pages yet unread. I'm debating the wisdom of opening that e-mail when it does come. Tomorrow morning, after a solid night's rest and a peaceful hour of yoga, would be the smarter bet for my soul.

 

Maybe I shouldn't look at my e-mail for the rest of the day.

 

The past two weeks of freedom from the manuscript have been devoted to tying up loose ends before I dive back into the Slough of Revision: assembling 2014 forms and receipts for the tax preparer (can you believe it, I found someone who works with writers!); preparing two writing residency applications; making dentist, optometrist, and doctor appointments that I've pushed down the to-do list to the next week or the one after that; emerging from my cocoon to see friends, send thank you notes, connect with family, bake bread, go the movies.

 

I've also been working on TUI, my third novel. I think longingly to a year ago, when THE CROWS OF BEARA poured out of me, unfettered by other obligations, free from competing distractions. The story flew from my fingertips with such certainty: 105,000 words in ten weeks.

 

What a different writing experience this time, in part because I had to set TUI aside for so long and I'm about to set it aside again. In part because the storytelling itself is different—deeper, more personal. There's something I'm reaching for and I won't get there in a first draft. I won't know the layers I need to uncover until I see the whole of it spread out before me.

 

This is something new, this switching of writing gears from revision mode into first draft creativity, this distraction caused by the business of writing—all the thinking about websites and blog tours and blurbs and head shots and author platforms.

 

If I'm fortunate and THE CROWS OF BEARA sells, I will be in a cycle of writing-revising-promoting for the foreseeable future. What a gift that cycle will be in sustaining a viable career, but it's something I will need to learn to manage: making the intellectual and emotional leap from one work to another, from one type of writing to another, scraping together the free moments—whether for a day or a few weeks—to clear my brain and allow new material to enter unabated.

 

It's late afternoon in Chicago now. Cold and clear. Maybe my editor is watching the clock, hoping to be on her way home before dark to a quiet night in with her husband, or dinner out with girlfriends. Maybe she's nearing the ending that I decided I wanted to change after I'd sent her my edits.

 

It's not too late to make that change. But by April it will be. And I will be ready for too late. I will be ready to move on.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do? Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied. Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you? Hemingway: Getting the words right. — Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Reality Bites © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

Whiplash: The Power of Story

Sunday afternoon, in the warm, dark cocoon of a movie theatre—my husband working, the rest of the immediate universe watching the Superbowl—I saw a powerful, brilliant film. One of the best I've seen.  

Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is a small-budget marvel that brings home the power of story, reminding us how few bells and whistles are needed to rivet an audience. A simple plot, a clear theme, a setting that inhabits the characters, but doesn't draw attention away from them. A story driven by the will and force of its characters. Characters you cannot turn your mind away from.

 

Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman at a fictionalized New York music conservatory, is a gifted, introverted jazz drummer who goes to movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and stares longingly at the pretty girl who serves him up a bucket of popcorn (Melissa Benoist). Andrew's talent catches the ear of the school's reining jazz God, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and he's invited to join Fletcher's studio band. Studio band is the school's most prestigious—the one that wins competitions and makes or breaks careers. What follows is an emotional thriller that is as taut as the skin stretched over a drum.

 

It's been twenty years since I've reacted so viscerally to a movie (The English Patient. It still destroys me. Oh, that movie.) At one point, I felt a hot, woozy wave wash over me and I feared I'd either faint or vomit. I dropped my feet from the seat—I'd been curled in a tight ball of tension—and slid them back into my tennis shoes, preparing to flee if need be. That's how wrenched and gutted and caught up in this story I'd become.

 

It's facile fun to get lost in a fast-paced nail-biter, to fall over the edge into a cliffhanger, yet I don't read many thrillers. But that's not what I'm talking about here—the power of Whiplash isn't in hitting the conventional story arcs at the right times; it's in the profound dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher, a story that shoves aside all unnecessary filler and fluff to drive right at the heart with searing emotion and at the intellect with questions of ethics and the cult of personality.

 

One theme: power. Arguably, how hard one is willing to work for a dream could be another, but I find that trite. This movie is about power. Two characters. A limited range of settings used to stunning effect. A tightly-plotted script. Realistic, unaffected, loose dialogue from one character; a calculated cascade of abuse or soothing manipulation from another. A story that is largely autobiographical, from a director and screenwriter working out his own rage and hurt. He isn't showing us what he knows, Chazelle is showing us what he feels. He lets the characters work out what they know, or what they convince themselves of. A denouement that releases you into a false sense of relief, before electrifying you with an ending that offers both redemption and ambiguity. It is storytelling perfection.

 

As a viewer, I was captivated. Twisted into knots. Gutted. Exhausted. As a writer, I was all, THIS. THIS is how it's done.

 

 

Behind the Curtain: A Novel's Publication Schedule

March 2016. Mark your calendars. Okay, plan on marking your calendars. I haven't gotten around to filling in important 2015 dates, much less thirteen months from now.  

Well, there are a few I've inked in. A series of deadlines, a set of anticipated events, a dream that's fast becoming a series of To-Dos, as REMEMBERING walks this path toward publication.

 

When I tell people that March 2016 is the publication date, most—unless they've gone through the process already—look at me with eyes wide and mouths agape. That long? they exclaim. Why the delay?

 

Oh, there's no delay. In fact, REMEMBERING is a bit rushed. Most novels run on an eighteen-months-from-contract-signing-to-publication calendar. Mine's about fifteen. And I'm grateful for each month, week, day between now and launch. Here's a glimpse of what's happening, what will happen, and what I need to make happen, in the time I have:

 

Approximate Manuscript Schedule:

First revision back to editor: January 26, 2015

Next edits to me: February 6, 2015

Final ms due: March 20, 2015

Cover for Author Review: probably Feb or March 2015

Copyedits for Author Review: April 13, 2015

Reading Group Guide & Author Q&A: April 27, 2015

ARCs** printed: Early June 2015

Synopsis for Sales: July 1, 2015

2nd pages for Author Review: Late September 2015

Blurbs due: Mid-October 2015

Final Closes to Printer: November 2015

**ARCs stands for Advance Reading Copies, which are sent to reviewers and other publicity/marketing contacts several months before the book is published. From these, cover and promotional blurbs are generated.

 

Last Thursday, five days ahead of deadline, I submitted my first round of edits. I stand back, a bit trembly and astonished at how many story changes I've made in these five weeks. Entire chapters eliminated; a character killed off; another just erased, as if he'd never existed; material I wrote a couple of years ago and then deleted—now revived, revised, restored. Names changed, plot points altered. And the revising is not over. A couple of weeks to breathe, to return to TUI, before I receive the next round from my editor. By sometime mid-April, when the copyedits are complete and I've submitted a Reading Group Guide and an Author Q&A (a little shiver of delight!), I'll be released to think about other work.

 

Kinda sorta.

 

In late fall, I'll begin working with my publisher's publicist on planning the book's "launch"—a publishing term I love: launch means the book's release. I get this visual of a rocket lifting into the sky from a platform of flames, of confetti tossed from the window of a high rise, of a great bird spreading its wings and rising on a current of air. I love the idea of REMEMBERING launching into the world.

 

What I don't love is the idea of a launch party. I'm an introvert. I hate parties. Do I have to have one? Who's going to pay for it? What will I wear? What if no one comes? Would you bring your dog so I have someone to talk to? These are the things I worry about at 3 a.m.

 

But of course, that promotion work begins well before next fall. It's work I must do, work my agent and I will map out together. It's what I'm most dreading and most excited about. Self-promotion gives me the heebie-jeebies—it embarrasses me terribly—but it must be done. The learning curve will be steep, and my challenge is to find ways to make it thoughtful, compelling, inclusive, fun and sustainable. What excites me is the possibility of engaging with readers, but of course that won't happen until I actually have some. Sigh. For the time being, I soak in and glean wisdom from writers in a couple of Facebook groups who are in the same stage of publication or a few steps ahead; arm myself with back issues of Poets and Writers, Midge Raymond's excellent Everyday Book Marketing, and Dan Blank's weekly newsletter, and scribble out must-dos and wish-lists, budgets and bios.

 

I remind myself what a gift I've been given—this hand on my shoulder that says, "We believe enough in this book that we're taking it out into the world." This opportunity to realize a dream.

 

I don't have to have a launch party. But if I do, you're all invited!

You write because you need to write, or because you hope someone will listen or because writing will mend something broken inside you or bring something back to life.” ― Joanne Harris, Blackberry Wine

One month, four drafts, 1300 pages: First Round Edits

A Voice for the Stolen: Speaking Up For Nigeria

Reports surfaced early last week that hundreds of people, perhaps as many as 2000, were massacred by Boko Haram forces in northern Nigeria, near the Chadian border. Boko Haram, a militant, extremist Islamic separatist movement that is classified as a terrorist organization, is responsible for thousands of deaths since its emergence in 2009. In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 200 schoolgirls, reportedly to make them wife-slaves; those girls remain unaccounted for and hundreds more women and children have been imprisoned and enslaved since.  

Recent reports out of northern Nigeria indicate Boko Haram is using kidnapped girls as suicide bombers.

 

Why am I telling you this?

 

Because so few are talking about it.

 

Last week, I raged, I posted on Facebook, I tweeted, I trolled the internet for information. NPR, through the indomitable reporting of Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, as well as syndicated shows Here and Now and On the Media, has done an admirable job of keeping the Baga Massacre in the news; British media, including the BBC and print media The Guardian and The Independent, are producing the most audible, visible, and compelling reports and narratives. Yes, the Bring Back Our Girls campaign raised awareness during the initial days of the schoolgirl hostage crisis last year, but interest waned as time wore on and both captors and victims remained faceless, hopeless headlines. Headlines that grew smaller and have all but disappeared.

 

Why am I telling you this?

 

Because little girls are being forced to blow themselves up.

 

Because little girls are being forced.

 

Because little girls.

 

I believe that lifting up women and girls—ensuring access to education and health care, providing freedom from oppression, delaying the age of first childbirth, promoting engagement in their country's economic system—is the single most important way to end poverty, improve a country's economic and political stability, and yes, even combat religious extremism and terrorism. Ample evidence of this—across cultures, nations, ages—is borne out by statistical research, surveys, white papers, dissertations, and by those who work tirelessly in shelters, refugee camps, schools, hospitals, non-profits and NGOs around the world. We know what to do. Corruption, misogyny, greed, extremism, and lack of political and popular will stand in the way.

 

But now it not the time for my opinion. Now is not the time for me to tell you why stability in Nigeria is critical to American political and economic security. You can read about that for yourself. I posted a few links below that I hope you find useful.

 

I don't know what can be done to help those women and children in Nigeria; nothing can be done to bring back the lives of those slaughtered. But I do know that we can all contribute to projects which work for women's and girl's empowerment. I've included links to few of those below, too.

 

On a day when we honor one of the world's greatest human rights activists, can I ask that you read something about what's happening in Nigeria? Can I ask that you stand up for the right of women and girls to be free from violence, no matter where they live? It doesn't have to be Nigeria. It can be the women's shelter across town. You are needed.

 

Understanding the history of Boko Haram & Northern Nigeria

Northern Nigerian Conflict, James Verini, National Geographic, November 2013.

The Ongoing Horrors of Boko Haram with journalist Alexis Okeowo, On the Media NPR/WNYC, January

The Kidnapped and Enslaved

Missing Nigeria Schoolgirls: A Chronological Storyline NBC News

Baga Massacre

New Reports Show Unprecedented Horror in Nigeria's Baga Massacre, Lizabeth Paulat, Care2

Satellite Images Only Source Showing Extent of Baga Massacre, Victoria Richards, The Independent, January 15, 2015

Media Reaction to Baga

Is The World Ignoring Nigeria? Here and Now, Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson, NPR/WBUR January 16, 2015

Why Journalists Don't Seem to Care About the Massacre in Nigeria Mark Hay, GOOD Magazine January 13, 2015

What the United States is Doing to Improve Security and Stability in Nigeria

U.S. Efforts to Assist the Nigerian in its Fight Against Boko Haram

What Can I Do?

Mercy Corps: Be The Change

Mercy Corps: Why Women Are Key to Building Resilience: Projects in Mali, Niger, Nigeria

Half the Sky Movement

There are dozens of organizations that support women's empowerment around the world. Here's a great list compiled by Half the Sky Movement: Organizations Devoted to Women's Empowerment Projects

Light through the clouds  © Julie Christine Johnson 2014

brown girl dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

My only reading goal for 2015 is to read more poetry. Without design—just luck of the queue at the library—brown girl dreaming, a memoir in verse, was the first book that landed in my hands this year. There is something sublime in that serendipity. Each and every page of brown girl dreaming is a gift of wisdom and innocence and discovery. Heartbreak. Joy. Family. Loneliness. Childhood. History. I savored and smiled as I read. I wept. After I read it, I rushed out to buy a copy for myself. I wish I could buy copies for the world.

 

The book’s opening poem signals the story Jacqueline Woodson seeks to tell:

I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital Columbus, Ohio, USA— A country caught

Between Black and White.

 

Woodson reminds us that when she was born in 1963, “...only seven years had passed since Rose Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus” in Montgomery, Alabama. The author, too, is of the South, but also of the Midwest and of the North. She moved with her mother, sister, and brother to Greenville, South Carolina—to her mother’s family—when she was a toddler, and then to Brooklyn, New York in elementary school.

 

brown girl dreaming is also the story of a little girl finding her voice. In Woodson’s case, it was the discovery that words and stories belonged to her—she just needed the time to meet them on her own terms:

I am not my sister. Words from the books curl around each other make little sense until I read them again and again, the story settling into memory. Too slow my teacher says. Read Faster. Too babyish, the teacher says. Read older. But I don't want to read faster or older or any way else that might make the story disappear too quickly from where it's settling inside my brain, slowly becoming a part of me. A story I will remember long after I've read it for the second, third, tenth, hundredth time.

 

There is such joy and love in her verse, a profound appreciation for her family and for the places that make up her visions of home. She writes of her mother’s parents in South Carolina:

So the first time my mother goes to New York City we don’t know to be sad, the weight of our grandparents’ love like a blanket with us beneath it, safe and warm.

And of Brooklyn:

We take our food out to her stoop just as the grown-ups start dancing merengue, the women lifting their long dresses to show off their fast-moving feet, the men clapping and yelling, Baila! Baila! until the living room floor disappears.

 

 

You may find brown girl dreaming on the fiction shelves of bookstores and libraries, for it is classified as a “fictionalized memoir.” Leaving aside debates of genre, it is far more likely to find a readership from these fiction shelves, and that is a good and necessary thing. Memoir and free verse may seem like odd companions, particularly in a book meant for younger readers, but oh, what a stellar opportunity to read and teach the power of poetry.

 

brown girl dreaming received the 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and is ostensibly a book meant for middle-grade readers, but it is timeless in its grace and eloquence. I recommend it to everyone, regardless of age.

 

Were I a pre-teen, I know I’d be reading this at every available moment: at the breakfast table, on the bus, in the cafeteria, in my room instead of suffering through long division homework and answering questions on the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of chapter 27 in my Social Studies text. The intimacy and immediacy of brown girl dreaming feels like a secret passed between BFFs, a Technicolor “now” of an After-School Special, the story of an American kid my age that is at once familiar in emotion and exotic in setting.

 

Were I the parent of a pre-teen or a younger child, we would read this together, for this is the history of America in the 1960s, and it offers so many of those “teachable moments”: opportunities to reach for history books, to seek out primary sources, to watch videos of speeches and documentaries of a time that is both distant, yet still very much at hand. The same would hold true for a book club of adults. brown girl dreaming can serve as a touchstone for African-American literature and history, which is our shared history.

 

As an adult, I read this with humility and wonder, enchanted by the voice of young Jacqueline Woodson as she discovers the importance of place, self, family, and words. As a writer, I am awed and overjoyed by the beauty of her language, by the richness of her verse.

Even the silence has a story to tell you. Just listen. Listen.

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